The nation’s best offensive rebounder suits up for North Carolina, but doesn’t start. He was a top-30 recruit in what is shaping up to be one of the best high school classes in recent memory, but is more than happy to stay in the shadows.
At 6-10 with a 7-4 wingspan, freshman Tony Bradley shares dimensions more with a wacky, waving, inflatable arm-flailing tube man than the average human. That can make slinking into the background a bit tougher. You know what else can make it tough? Playing well enough to where he could reasonably make the decision to become a one-and-done despite playing a limited sample of 525 minutes.
Still, Bradley would be happier if he could go about his business on the floor instead of answering questions. He’s not rude by any means, and he answers whatever is asked of him in the best manner possible. But if it was his choice, he “wouldn’t be” in the locker room with media if he didn’t have to be due to NCAA rules.
“I just come in, keep it low key,” Bradley told Sporting News. “I don’t need attention. I’ve never been about attention. I know coming out of high school, I was titled ‘one of the top players in the nation.’ I still wasn’t about the attention then. I just come in, do what I have to do, and then go out. I don’t need any of the extra stuff. That’s the way I’ve always seen it.”
The “extra stuff” is coming at some point within the next couple of years, whether Bradley likes it or not, be it in the NBA or in the college game in Chapel Hill. But for now, his “about the team” mentality is the perfect attitude for a North Carolina group that features two double-digit senior scorers in the frontcourt as well as Luke Maye off the bench. He’s happy to play a role in the deepest frontcourt in America, a major reason why the Tar Heels have reached the final weekend of college basketball. More importantly, though, he’s been extremely productive in the limited minutes he gets.
Bradley is putting up 20.0 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes played. His 18.7 offensive rebounding rate would lead the country if he was eligible for such a designation due to minutes requirements. He doesn’t necessarily notice himself assuch a unique talent in terms of crashing the glass.
“I just see the ball, and I go get it,” Bradley said. “I’ve gotten a lot of people saying I’m a good offensive rebounder, but I haven’t really noticed it. I just rebounded everywhere.”
Well even if Bradley can’t see it, there are two reasons he’s such an effective weapon crashing the offensive glass. First, despite his long legs, he’s great at creating leverage with his lower half to carve out space for himself.
He might look skinny from afar, but he has 250 pounds packed onto his body. That, in addition to the long arms that heunderstands how to utilize on the offensive glass, makes him a perfect weapon on the offensive glass.
“He’s just long as crap, man,” junior wing Theo Pinson said. “He’s just out there playing and doesn’t even think. The ball will go up and he’s just reaching as high as he can and put it right back in the basket. There was an instance at practice (Thursday), where (Brandon Robinson) had him boxed out and Tony just reached up, caught itand put it in the basket. He’s just so gifted and that long.”
This stuff happens regularly at North Carolina practices. Isaiah Hicks mentioned a similar moment in practice where the team was in zone and he just reached over everyone for a put-back after a missed shot. Speaking of Hicks, the 6-8 forward was in a similar situation to Bradley over the course of the last three years. A McDonald’s All-American, Hicks spent three years as a highly utilized bench player before turning into an important starter for the Tar Heels this season. He noted that the key to being a contributor off the bench is to stay focused in the game and to do what he does best on the floor.
Another thing that teammates have been trying to impart upon Bradley: confidence. That team-first attitude that Bradley exudes at every moment? It cancause him to defer too much, and not recognize the incredible skills he possesses already.
“There’s nothing he can’t do, skill-wise,” Pinson said. “He’s highly skilled. He has a midrange game. The thing with Tony, we have to always tell him to be aggressive. We’ll be like ‘Tony, you’re at the basket, just score.’ But he’s constantly looking for teammates or passes. You’d rather have that then a teammate that just shoots it every time, though.”
That potential to do multiple things on both ends of the floor as well as his attitude has indeed made him a sought-after NBA prospect. The NBA has always been a game of possessions, but now as the league moves toward perimeter-based action, finding big men who can play low-usage minutes, protect the rimand create extra shots through offensive rebounding has become an important archetype of player. Having a guy like Bradley who is capable ofcreatingoffensive rebounding opportunities by himself could also allow an organization to continue to drop four players back in transition defense while not sacrificing much on second chances.
But that’s a little ways away. I chatted with two NBA scouts about Bradley this week, with both of them noting that while a team could take the plunge on him in the first round, itmakes sense for him to return in order to try to solidify his stock for next season.
“He needs to keep getting stronger,” a Western Conference scout said. “He’s still kind of a project, and this draft is deep with centers later in the first round. There’s a chance he’d be picked in the first, but a guy with such limited playing time would be taking a risk by declaring.”
Ultimately, we’ll see what Bradley decides when he assesses his options after the Final Four. But until then, he’s happy floating under the radar as a role player on a team that has a chance to cut down the nets this season. Even though Bradley could probably cut down his strand by standing below the rim, expect the use of a ladder because Bradley still doesn’tunderstand what people are talking about with his length.
“Everyone says that (my arms are long), but I don’t really see it,” Bradley said.
He’s the only one in the basketball community that doesn’t, that’s for sure.